Michael Brown FCIOB, formerly deputy chief executive of the CIOB and now a business consultant specialising in international projects, on the effects and extent of China’s nascent BIM revolution.
Given the number of conferences and seminars in China and extravagant claims on what BIM will do for construction clients, it’s easy to conclude that BIM in China is “hot” – indeed very hot. Perhaps the most extravagant claim, and the truest, is that it will bring a revolution to the industry. However, like most revolutions there is uncertainty, discontent and resistance below the surface.
The construction industry in China is highly fragmented, as fragmented as anywhere in the world, and successful BIM implementation requires integrated working in order to gain maximum benefit for the client and the project.
For most BIM applications China is at the stage of 3D visualisation and clash detection but with a strong analytical approach to the data produced. However, there is still a lot of discussion by practitioners about the software and technology available and clearly software still needs improvement to fully support the Chinese market.
The largest software suppliers are Golden, Lu Ban (both Chinese) and Autodesk Revit, but there are many other pretenders to the throne. These products are too difficult for many clients and professionals to understand and there is a call for less complex packages. Revit is clearly the most highly developed internationally but does not easily fit the normal Chinese construction market and industry practices. In my experience there is far more discussion about software in China than is apparent in the UK.
I have spoken to a project management consultancy that has developed significant BIM delivery capability. It has an Autodesk-registered BIM team that build their own client platforms on top of Revit to match their client’s requirements. As a project management consultancy they wish to develop BIM to cover the PM roles of engineering cost, tendering and supervision, analysing the clients’ and contractors’ needs in respect of cost, quantities, schedule and safety. The cloud is normally used for data storage.
The consultancy has developed four platforms on top of Revit that can be built into bespoke solutions for different clients’ needs. Their starting point is to understand the client’s business and match the software to the need. However in their own words, clients still behave “more like an audience” than a participant.
In general, the differences in public and private work are very marked in China with many other market variations within the industry, while Chinese practices are also very different from the industry we know in the west.
There are no national standards for BIM in China: it is said that the government provides encouragement but not leadership. The government is focused on results rather than process, with the overall goal of improving the efficiency of the industry.
However, it seems that BIM in China is becoming as fragmented as the construction industry itself. One city, Shenzhen, in the south next to Hong Kong, has already produced its own standards. There is also a need to update general government regulations to meet BIM requirements, as well as encouragement for companies to work together, adopt new innovations and train BIM workers.
It is generally reckoned that in the short-term the use of BIM will add cost to projects. Clients are reluctant to take on the risk of higher costs against savings that may or may not be made by more efficient working. There is very little understanding of the long-term benefits of BIM. In fact, facilities management is not so well developed in China and the value of life-long data not recognised. Clients therefore need much persuasion to pay the extra costs of using BIM.
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Where clients are persuaded about the project benefits of BIM, often they do not want to pay for the BIM model on completion of the project. This leads to an interesting conundrum as to who owns the BIM project data, if not the client. The software companies often provide free software but then claim access to the data for their own ends.
Designers, too, are reluctant to use BIM. Designers in China get paid on the number of drawings they produce. How then do you get paid for a 3D model and any efficiency gains that are accrued? Designers do not currently have payback, and fear they may not get paid for the extra work in using BIM, so a new way of costing the work is needed.
What’s more, for government approval, authorities still require 2D drawings, as they do not have the ability (and/or software) to handle 3D models. There is very little collaboration between architects and other design professionals, for example architects feel they have no responsibility for the work of structural engineers.
Designers are also aware that BIM has the potential to throw up inaccuracies in design that can expose them to “loss of face”, if not accusations of incompetence. One example is a project where BIM analysis is said to have reduced the weight of steel to be used from 3,400 tonnes to 2,000 tons. Structural engineers overdesign! Designers are therefore reluctant to embrace BIM, because it makes everything more transparent.
Contractors too have to rethink. With more transparency and precision in the project design, contractors cannot rely on variations to offset underpricing in competition. Variations in China are readily paid for. It remains to be seen how quickly contractors will learn to work within the new regime.
Once the not insignificant organisational issues are overcome, Chinese professionals and workers are adept at using mobile technologies and for them management through a BIM model will be second nature. For China, a country ruled by the smart phone, it is a small step to add in financial data, scheduling and photographic recording to the BIM model. There is no inhibition to using technology, as on a day-to-day (or minute-by-minute) basis the population’s use of information and communication technologies is second to none.
BIM provides more data for the client and more data means more control. Some, especially in the private sector, readily understand these benefits. However, there is a call for government to provide financial incentives to use BIM on public projects.
The government now has a plan for collecting data and BIM information. In Shanghai there is a move to add BIM data to geographic data at city level, including utility and comms data as well. In this way Shanghai can build a smart city based on comprehensive data.
There is little doubt that the BIM revolution in China is on its way. There are parallels between issues facing BIM adoption in China and those faced in the rest of the world. However, China has demonstrated an unquestioning adoption of innovation and it is likely that this will quickly drive China into the BIM era. And although the construction industry in China is downsizing in the face of a slowing economy, the big difference compared to the rest of the world is still scale – the Chinese construction industry is huge.
It remains to be seen if China will regulate its BIM standards or let the market determine the way forward. The current fragmentation of the industry is very much determined by government licensing and practice, and it is well known that regulation stifles innovation and creativity. However, in a country used to centralised control, the market is asking for more certainty and leadership.
So BIM in its many different manifestations in China is “hot”, although the revolution to make it happen has still to become a full force. China has a habit of turning tomorrow into yesterday faster than we can imagine, with technology driving that change.